Aformer Marine and Las Vegas Vice cop, Nathan Fox has seen it all and then some. Heading up security for The Onyx Casino is tame compared to his past, but it's not his only job. Working for The Reliance Group is his real passion project. His current case: A missing woman. His mission: To find her. But soon Nathan must deal with a stubborn--and stunning--journalist who's nosed her way into the investigation...and into Nathan's fantasies.
To reporter Nicole Hutton, exposing a ruthless, twisted criminal who abuses vulnerable teens isn't just a job. In fact, this story has become very personal, especially now that she's gotten tangled up with sexy Nathan Fox. But before she can break the story, and help rescue a missing girl, she and Nathan must brave the labyrinth of Vegas's dark underbelly...where the heat simmering between them is about to burst into flames...
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
March 28, 2011
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Excerpt from Into the Night by Janelle Denison
Being called to the boss's office didn't happen often for Nathan Fox. But when it did, there was usually a damn good reason for the summons.
Sometimes, meeting with Caleb Roux was all about discussing a security or surveillance problem they were having at The Onyx Hotel and Casino. Today, judging by Caleb's serious demeanor and the familiar red folder sitting on the surface of his desk stamped CONFIDENTIAL, this one-on-one was all about The Reliance Group and a case Nathan was about to get briefed on.
A familiar rush of anticipation surged through Nathan. As a surveillance supervisor at The Onyx, he enjoyed his security job and outsmarting the criminal element who thought they could beat the system. But as a former undercover vice cop with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, being a part of TRG was a nice little side job that fulfilled the part of him that still loved the thrill of the chase and the adrenaline rush of a challenge.
"What do you have for me?" Nathan asked, getting right to the point.
His boss splayed his fingers on top of the folder but didn't open it, as if he was protecting secrets he wasn't quite ready to reveal. At the age of thirty-six, Caleb exuded a quiet confidence and intelligence, along with sharp instincts Nathan had come to respect. Most knew Caleb as the operations manager of The Onyx, but a select group of employees at the casino knew him as something else as well--the astute leader of The Reliance Group, the very discreet and covert team Caleb had organized a few years ago.
TRG consisted of an interesting mix of "specialists" who possessed unorthodox skills and took on assignments other agencies refused to touch. Depending on the job or the situation, they were hired out privately and confidentially, using whatever means were available to complete the mission.
Nathan was certain today's case would be no different.
"As you might have guessed, I have a new assignment for you, and this one is going to require you to go undercover, which we both know is your specialty."
After acknowledging Caleb's statement with a nod, Nathan waited patiently for him to continue.
Leaning back in his chair, Caleb gave away nothing with his relaxed posture as he revealed the facts of the case. "I was contacted by a man named Tom Ramsey, a lieutenant colonel in the marines who recently retired. According to my initial interview, he's had a hard time integrating back into his marriage and family after being on active duty for so many years."
Nathan himself had spent four years in the marines, and he could relate to Ramsey's difficulties. After spending years in war-torn countries, making the mental and emotional transition back into a normal civilian life wasn't always easy.
"This assignment involves Ramsey's sixteen-year-old daughter, Angela, who recently ran away from home," Caleb went on. "Over the past two years that Tom has been home, his daughter has grown increasingly hostile and resents the fact that he hasn't been a real part of her life since she was a baby. Now he's taking an active role in disciplining her, and she's rebelled big-time. She's been caught drinking alcohol, smoking pot, and shoplifting. While she's left home before, this time it's been much longer than a few days."
A runaway. Nathan felt a solid kick to his gut over that bit of information as a past he desperately wanted to forget flashed through his mind. He inhaled deeply and did his best to keep his focus on the facts pertaining to this particular case. "How long has she been missing?"
"Over three weeks," Caleb told him as he rubbed his hand along his clean-shaven jaw. "Ramsey hired a private investigator to find her and discovered she'd made her way from their home in Arizona to Vegas. Problem is, Tom can't get to his daughter."
Nathan frowned. "What's the issue? She's a minor. A call to Metro and they'd pick her up, haul her ass back to Arizona, and hand her over to her parents where she belongs."
"There's a catch." Caleb's jaw clenched ever so slightly, but his gaze remained as direct as his personality. "According to the PI, Angela hooked up with Preston Sloane here in Las Vegas. The PI's final report has Angela living at Sloane's estate home in Summerlin."
Nathan's mind reeled, and a chill raced through his blood.
Preston Sloane. The prominent fifty-four-year-old man was rumored to have a penchant for young girls, a fact Nathan was well aware of since Sloane had been on his radar when he'd been a vice cop. During the time Nathan had worked undercover in a prostitution ring, he'd seen and heard enough about the arrogant, mega-rich financier and his sleazy appetites to verify that there was a lot of truth to the gossip surrounding the billionaire's sybaritic lifestyle.
Sloane was a man who lured young girls into his life with irresistible promises of excitement, luxury, and expensive gifts. Once he enticed them into his debauched world of sex and narcotics, getting them hooked on drugs ensured they stayed until he grew tired of them. Or until someone younger and prettier grabbed his attention. That's when he abandoned them to the unforgiving streets of Vegas to fend for themselves, where they were eventually snatched up by pimps looking to add to their stable of working girls.
Just as Sloane had done with Katie, the girl Nathan had sworn to protect all those years ago.
Sloane had destroyed first her innocence, then her life when he'd cast her aside to survive the only way she knew how. By the age of seventeen, she'd been picked up by a pimp and was working as a prostitute to support her drug addiction. Sloane might not have been the one to put the bullet in Katie's head that had ultimately killed her, but Nathan held the man responsible for taking advantage of her youth and vulnerability and changing the course of what should have been a long and promising life for Katie.
Sickened by what he'd been unable to prevent, Nathan felt his stomach twist into a huge knot. The guilt sliced deep, just as it always did whenever he thought of Katie and how he'd failed to save her.
"Tom already went the police route," Caleb continued, seemingly unaware of Nathan's inner turmoil, but Nathan knew better. His boss was well aware of the demons that still haunted him. "They paid a visit to Sloane's estate in Summerlin and were greeted by Preston himself, along with an invitation to search anywhere they pleased on the premises, which they did."
"All twenty-five thousand square feet of the place?" Nathan asked, doing his best to focus on this case, and not his past.
"Supposedly, yes." The shrewd look in Caleb's eyes told Nathan the other man was skeptical, too.
Nathan knew Sloane's estate sprawled over ten acres. A virtual fortress on the outside, and a palace inside, the massive domain had been built to house over a dozen guests. The entire place was surrounded by twelve-foot walls, state-of-the-art surveillance, and armed guards; it was as impenetrable as Fort Knox. To get anywhere beyond the gilded gates, an invitation from Preston Sloane himself was required.
Caleb absently tapped his finger on the red file folder. "Needless to say, they didn't find Angela, or any evidence she'd been there. I suspect someone warned Sloane before the cops arrived with a search warrant."
Nathan couldn't disagree. While working for Metro, he'd quickly learned that the man was untouchable, and well insulated by people who were paid to protect him.
"So, either the girl is hiding and doesn't want to be found, or she's being held against her will," Nathan speculated out loud.
"That's what it narrows down to," Caleb said with a succinct nod, then leaned forward and finally pushed the red folder across his desk toward Nathan. "It's your job to infiltrate Sloane's circle, get into the estate, and find Angela so we can bring her back safely to her father."
Normally, Nathan would have reached for the file and given the contents a look just in case he had any other questions for Caleb. Hesitation rose within him now, though, along with deeper, darker emotions from the past he'd worked so hard to suppress.
"Getting close to Sloane is going to take time," he said, his tone gruffer than he'd intended.
"Take a week and get everything set up," Caleb said, not backing down. "After tonight, your shift at the casino will be covered so you can start on the case. All the information we currently have on Sloane and the case is in that folder, along with a current photo of the girl. Let me know if there's anything else you need and I'll get it for you."
"Okay," Nathan replied, unable to quell the churning in his gut, that sense of walking into trouble before it even began.
"Lucas is processing your new identity, and the documents you'll need to support your new persona for the case will be here in a few days."
Nathan nodded, familiar with the routine of undercover work.
Caleb stood and rounded the desk. Stopping next to Nathan's chair, he gripped his shoulder. "I know you can handle it, Nathan, or I wouldn't have put you on this assignment. You have the experience to tackle this case. You can save a girl and give her a happy ending. Her father is counting on that, and on you."
Shit. Tom Ramsey's unconditional trust in his ability to get his daughter home safely was the last thing Nathan wanted on his conscience.
Caleb left the office and closed the door behind him, leaving Nathan alone with that damn red file and his own turbulent thoughts. Leaning forward in his chair, he braced his arms on his knees, released a harsh breath that seemed to burn his lungs, and cursed the other man's tough-love approach.
Caleb knew Nathan's past, and the reason he'd quit the force. The bastard knew exactly what he was doing when he'd handed him this case. There were just too damn many similarities to his last undercover assignment as a vice cop.
He didn't even know Tom Ramsey or his daughter Angela, but the case was fast becoming personal, which had been Caleb's intent. The other man was forcing Nathan to face his greatest fears and failure, and was giving him the chance to right a wrong and maybe lay his guilt to rest.
If that was even possible.
Life had shown Nathan there were no guarantees, and promises didn't mean shit because there was no controlling fate and her plans for a person. She certainly hadn't forgiven him for letting a young girl die.
Swallowing hard, he reached out and picked up the red file folder. He opened it and finally put a face to Angela. The attached high school picture showed a pretty girl with blond hair and bright blue eyes shining with the kind of youth and guilelessness a man like Preston Sloane wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of. She smiled at the camera, capturing a moment of happiness that somewhere along the way had turned into teenage angst and defiance, and had driven her to run away from home into a world that would destroy her innocence and leave her a mere shell of her former self.
He'd witnessed that kind of transformation with other young girls who believed that working the streets and giving their bodies to strangers would give them the love and attention they craved. And they usually paid with their souls. Some, with their lives.
As much as Nathan wished this assignment didn't exist, he knew he couldn't turn his back on Angela. He refused to let another young girl die because he didn't do his job.
He'd take the case, just as Caleb knew he would, his main goal to locate Angela and extract her from Sloane's estate by whatever means were necessary. While he'd like to believe it would be a quick in-and-out mission, Nathan had to consider what he was likely to find once he managed to gain entrance into Sloane's world.
If he was lucky, and fate truly was on his side this time, he'd find evidence that would finally put Preston Sloane behind bars for a very long time.
* * *
Finished with his surveillance shift later that night, Nathan made his way down to the main bar in the casino in an attempt to relax and unwind before he headed home for the evening. There were only a few guests at the bar, and Nathan grabbed a seat at the far end, away from the other customers. He waited for Sean, the bartender, to finish making a martini for an older woman, who eyed Sean appreciatively as he mixed the drink and flirted shamelessly with her.
Nathan grinned, his mood lightening as he watched Sean O'Brien, player extraordinaire, in action. The man possessed an abundance of charm and had a way with females most guys envied.
Once the martini was served, Sean strolled down to his end of the bar. "Hey, Fox." The other man greeted him by his last name, as he always did. "What can I get for you this fine evening?"
"The regular, on the rocks."
Sean shook his head, his Irish blue eyes dancing with unabashed amusement. "A root beer," he emphasized in that drawl of his. "You are such a teetotaler."
Nathan didn't take offense, since the other man always enjoyed ribbing him about his drink of choice. "It's what I like, so there's no point in pretending otherwise."
"Real men drink beer." Sean continued to give him a hard time. "The kind that's not sweetened."
A smile quirked the corner of Nathan's lips. "Luckily, I'm a secure guy and don't need to prove myself by tipping a bottle of Heineken."
"Yep, you da man." Sean saluted him and moved to the soda station.
Admittedly, on rare occasions Nathan indulged in a shot of Johnnie Walker Black, but there'd been a time when his sole reason to drink was to forget. Still, after spending a good six months abusing hard liquor and existing in a continuous drunken state to keep his personal nightmares at bay, he'd finally pulled his head out of his ass and sobered up in time to salvage what was left of his life.
Unfortunately, he'd been too late to save his relationship with his fianc?e, Jill. Unable to handle his mood swings and the guilt he hadn't been able to resolve, she'd walked out on him and hadn't looked back.
Not that he could blame her. He'd been a miserable son of a bitch after that last undercover mission, and his self-defeating behavior had put a huge strain on their relationship. Liquor had numbed his senses at a time when he'd badly needed it, and as much as he sometimes still wished he could drown that ever-present dull ache in his soul with a bottle of whiskey, dealing with reality, and everything he'd lost, had become his personal penance.
And soon, he was going to step right back into that dark life he'd once been a part of. Caleb Roux had made certain of that.
"Two's your limit. I don't want you driving under the influence," Sean joked as he placed a tall chilled glass of root beer in front of Nathan, then glanced at his watch. "What are you still doing here, anyway? Can't get enough of this place, or what?"
Nathan shrugged as he ran the tips of his fingers along the condensation gathering on his glass. "I'm not ready to head home yet."
"Maybe if you had someone to take home, you'd feel differently." Sean grinned wolfishly as he cleared a few dirty glasses from the counter. "I know for a fact the redhead over there is single and looking for a good time." He gave a subtle nod toward the young, perky-looking woman sitting across the bar who was nursing a frothy drink while casting seductive looks toward Sean whenever he happened to glance her way.
Nathan shook his head. "I think she's pining for you, my friend."
"So many women, so little time." Sean sighed but didn't seem put out. He habitually juggled more than one woman at a time. "Seriously, if you're looking for a good night's sleep, getting laid will do the trick."
"I don't think it would help. Not tonight, anyway." Nathan took a long drink of his root beer before sharing the real reason why he was sitting at the bar at two in the morning. "Caleb put me on a case and the gears are shifting and grinding, if you know what I mean."
Sean, also a Reliance team member, nodded in understanding. "I totally get it. Let me know if you need a refill."
Sean moved on to a new customer who'd taken a seat at the bar, an older gentleman who appeared down on his luck. Nathan took a sip of his soda and watched Sean give the man a friendly pep talk as he poured his drink, making his customer laugh at something he said. The gift of gab was one of Sean's many skills, a knack he'd mastered as a former con artist and used to his advantage when bartending, as well as on cases with TRG.
Despite Sean's shady past and the time he'd spent behind bars for his scams, thanks to Caleb he'd cleaned up his act and was now a valued operative of The Reliance Group. Many of TRG's team members either had secrets in their pasts or carried physical and emotional scars that could have destroyed their lives. Yet Caleb had seen beyond their flaws and had given them a reason to turn past mistakes into something positive. He'd given them a chance to redeem themselves and reclaim their self-respect.
Just like Nathan and the Ramsey case.
Before he could get mired in the darker thoughts he'd been resisting for most of the night, Valerie Downing slid onto the vacant bar stool beside Nathan, surprising him with her sudden appearance. Valerie was a casino host at The Onyx, where she catered to patrons' and players' whims to keep their business, and their gambling, confined to The Onyx. Her psychic abilities, however, made her an integral part of The Reliance Group.
Friendly as well as beautiful, Valerie flashed him a smile that lit up her soft brown eyes with threads of gold. "You're just the man I've been looking for."
Immediately thinking she was having a security issue with one of her clients, Nathan became alert. "Is there a problem on the floor?"
She shook her head, her silky brown hair sweeping across her shoulders with the movement. "No worries. This isn't about work. It's more about ... pleasure."
Out of nowhere, Sean appeared on the other side of the counter. "You've got my attention."
Valerie laughed, the husky sound filled with a wealth of amusement. "You are so easy, O'Brien."
He grinned like the rogue he was. "Only when it comes to pleasure."
She rolled her eyes. "I need a favor, and I'm hoping one of you will come through for me. Keep in mind what I'm about to ask you to do is for a very good cause."
Nathan was immediately suspicious. A quick glance at Sean told him the bartender wasn't nearly as eager to step up to the plate now that pleasure was no longer the sole focus of their conversation.
"Good causes don't come without some kind of personal sacrifice, Val," Nathan said, and finished off the last of his root beer.
"A monetary donation is definitely involved, and I'll need your time, too. About three hours of it." She glanced from Nathan to Sean, her expression oh-so-hopeful. "Is either of you free tomorrow after six?"
The question caught Nathan off guard, and he tried to think fast ... except he already knew he had nothing planned.
"You know, I just remembered I have a date tomorrow night," Sean interjected smoothly, appearing apologetic, but Nathan knew better. "I'm really sorry."
"Bummer." Valerie sounded truly disappointed, then she switched her optimistic gaze to Nathan. "How about you, Nath? Are you free? And before you answer that question, remember that you owe me a favor."
He lifted a brow. "I do?"
She nodded, looking much too confident for Nathan's comfort. "Remember last week with Trey Blackmore?"
Nathan groaned, recalling the incident too well. Blackmore was one of The Onyx's high rollers, a whale who dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars in the casino during his visits without flinching. Yes, the man was filthy rich and an asset to The Onyx's coffers, but he was also an arrogant bastard who was always trying to bend gambling rules and regulations because he believed he was entitled.
Just last week Nathan had gotten into a heated argument with Blackmore when he'd once again overstepped his boundaries with one of the pit bosses, and it had taken Valerie interceding to smooth things over. Her job was to keep their whales content and satisfied so they didn't take their gambling elsewhere, and she'd managed to placate Blackmore's ego while making sure he conformed to Nevada state gaming law.
Yeah, Nathan owed her for that one.
Fine. Whatever she needed, he could handle. How bad could her request be, anyway? It sounded like a fundraiser-type event, and at worst he'd have to attend some kind of shindig and schmooze for a few hours. He really wasn't in the mood, but for Valerie, he'd help out.
"Okay." He would suck this one up for good karma in the future. "Whatever you want, whatever you need, I'll do it for you."
"You are the best, Nathan." The smile she gave him spilled over with gratitude. "And who knows, you might even enjoy yourself."
The sudden mischievous gleam in her eyes sent a ripple of unease through him. "What, exactly, are you recruiting me for?"
"Actually, it's for a good friend of mine, who is an event planner. She's hosting an event where all the proceeds are donated to the battered women's shelter. There's just a few itty-bitty details you need to know ahead of time so you understand exactly what's required of you."
There were requirements. Great. "I'd be really happy if a suit and tie weren't involved."
"No, it's a casual affair. Nice slacks and a collared shirt will be fine," she said, making him extremely happy with the low-key dress code. "The event is being held at Simply Fondue, from six to nine tomorrow night."
He'd heard of the five-star restaurant, located on the Vegas Strip, but had never been there. He didn't see himself as a fondue type of guy, but he'd endure it for the sake of charity.
"This is a speed-dating charity event," she said, her words fast and rushed, leaving no room for interruption. "There's a cocktail hour, which will segue into the speed-dating game for another hour or so, and a bit of socializing afterward. It's really easy and simple and fun. And it's a great way to meet women. Nice women."
Sean, who'd been standing nearby drying wineglasses, choked back laughter. "Oh, man, you are so screwed."
What the hell? Nathan's head spun, and not necessarily in a good way. "What in the world is speed dating?"
"Just the newest way to meet the opposite sex," Valerie said, then went on to explain how it all worked. "It's a fun process that eliminates the awkwardness of meeting new people, or spending hours with a person you may not connect with."
He gave his head an adamant shake. "I don't have a problem meeting, or mingling with, the opposite sex."
She delivered a quick, placating squeeze to his arm. "Nobody said you did. And just because you participate in the game doesn't mean you're going to marry one of the women you meet." The sigh that escaped her sounded way too wistful and romantic. "Then again, how amazing would it be to find the woman of your dreams there? What a great story that would be, huh?"
Nathan cringed. Things were quickly going from bad to worse. His mind filled with images of women frantic to find a husband and ready to sink their claws into the next victim.
He shuddered at the thought and suddenly felt desperate to find a way out of the commitment he'd just made. "Why do you need me to do this for you? Doesn't your friend already have people signed up for this speed-dating thing?"
"She did, but three of the male applicants pulled out earlier tonight."
"Smart guys," Sean said, chuckling.
Valerie sent Sean a chastising glance before returning her attention to Nathan. "Cindy was only able to replace two of the guys, so she needed one more man to balance out the ratio of men to women and I promised her I'd help out." Obviously sensing Nathan's indecision, she rushed on to hook him for good. "It's only one night, and just a few hours of your time. All you have to do is talk to women and be nice to them. If you aren't attracted to any of them, no big deal. And if you did this for Cindy, for charity, I know she would be so grateful."
Awww, hell. Those expectant eyes gazing at him with such hope did him in. He was a sucker for a pretty face and sweet smile. He blamed his three older sisters for using the same tactics on him and taking advantage of that intrinsic male part of him that wanted to please the females in his life.
Like attending a charity event that involved dating strange women.
He couldn't bring himself to disappoint Valerie. It was only a few hours of his time, and wouldn't interfere with his TRG case since this weekend was all about compiling information on Preston Sloane and figuring out a strategy before going undercover. Nathan figured the event would be a good distraction from everything else weighing so heavily on his mind.
He sighed. "Fine, I'll do it."
He'd go to Simply Fondue tomorrow night. He'd meet and mingle with single women and gently deflect any interest, because he certainly wasn't looking for a relationship. He'd flirt, enjoy the cocktails and food, and chalk it all up to an interesting experience.
Then, with his good deed out of the way, he'd concentrate all his time and attention on the Ramsey case. His sole focus in the upcoming weeks would be finding sixteen-year-old Angela and bringing her safely back home to her parents, where she belonged.